by Geoff Gehman ’80 | photography by Chuck Zovko and Gabriel A. Cooney
Lauren Frese ’03 helped raise more than $20 billion for civilians in war-ravaged Afghanistan. She hiked three hours through the mountains in flip flops to attend a rally for student political leaders in newly democratic Nepal. Now she is starting a one-year term in Pakistan, helping the U.S. government help that country recover from floods that have left more than 21 million injured or homeless.
For five years, Frese has worked with the U.S. Department of State on behalf of foreign nations reeling from violence, poverty, and natural disaster. She’s served as analyst, lobbyist, and humanitarian point person. In short, she’s lived the promise of the Pepper Prize, which she received as the senior who “most nearly represents the Lafayette ideal.”
Frese came to College Hill as a global citizen in training. Her world view was expanded by her father, a municipal court judge in her hometown of Parsippany, N.J., and her mother, a retired teacher of special education. On her application essay to Lafayette, she cited a family trip to the Caribbean island of Grand Turk as an early exposure to the richness of an underdeveloped country. There was something special, she says, about watching the birth of a horse and eating fish caught that day.
After studying The Odyssey with other first-year students, Frese began her own odyssey. She taught prisoners, coordinated her sorority’s community outreach program, spent a semester living with a family in Spain. She directed the International Affairs Club and joined 71 peers at the 54th annual Japan-America Student Conference at the University of California, Berkeley. The event spurred her to write an honors thesis on decreasing global warming by increasing financial incentives to go green.
Frese thanks three Lafayette professors for giving her the gung-ho “to do whatever I wanted to do.” Rado Pribic, Williams Professor of Languages and co-chair of international affairs, encouraged her to immerse herself in foreign cultures. Gladstone Fluney Hutchinson, associate professor of economics, convinced her of the importance of studying overseas economies. John McCartney, professor of government and law and her thesis adviser, steered her toward a career in international development. “They would poke holes in my arguments or make me be more realistic,” she says.
“What makes the job exciting is that your days are somewhat unpredictable.”
McCartney praises Frese as a rare student-leader. “She is a deep thinker with creative insights and the skills to be both a great scholar and activist,” he says. “People like Lauren are a credit to the College and the country.”
After leaving Lafayette, Frese immediately began pursuing a career as a foreign-aid officer. In 2005, she received a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University. The same year, she began a two-year hitch in the Presidential Management Fellowship Program, attached to the state department’s bureau for South and Central Asia. One of the highlights of a four-month stay in Nepal in 2006 was attending a party-rally for student leaders of political parties in a distant village. She completed the journey after a surprise three-hour hike through the Himalayas. Her pain from wearing flip flops eased as she admired the civic passion of the students, some of whose parents had lost land to Maoist dissidents.
Frese had some nervous moments in Nepal, where a democratic republic had recently replaced the monarchy. She witnessed violent rallies with burning cars near her apartment, which was close to the home of the new Maoist prime minister. She describes the scary scene with the nonchalance of someone accustomed to riding in armored vehicles. “I guess it does kind of make you question what you’re doing,” she says with a laugh.
In 2006, Frese became a state department desk officer for Afghanistan, a young democracy threatened by Taliban terrorists, with bridges demolished by war and a phenomenal mortality rate among youngsters (one in five Afghan children dies before the age of five). Her roles ranged from briefing state department officials for meetings with Afghan colleagues to encouraging donors around the world to aid Afghan civilians. Working with the United Nations and the World Bank, she was part of a campaign that raised over $20 billion for the country’s first strategic development plan.
Last year, Frese became a true financial-political insider. She spent seven months on a scholarship analyzing state department budgets for Afghanistan and Pakistan, then defending them to the foreign-operations wing of the Senate Appropriations Committee. She not only justified the requests, she helped write the Congressional bill. “It was really cool to step outside the state department bubble and analyze what we’re doing,” she says.
Frese has a rather casual view of her intense work. “What makes the job exciting is that your days are somewhat unpredictable,” she says. Her schedule can yo-yo after, say, a potent statement from Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s democratic president, or a sudden meeting led by Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. And logistics can be daunting. Frese regularly communicates with embassies in time zones 9 to 10 hours ahead of hers. Her BlackBerry works so hard, it deserves a vacation.
Of course, working for the federal government has its fringe benefits. It was in Nepal that Frese fell for dal, a lentil stew she mixed and ate with her hands. She also relished a hike to Tilicho, one of the world’s highest lakes. Her eyes were seared by “the most beautiful blue I had ever seen.”
This fall, Frese began a yearlong post in Pakistan, another nation in perpetual crisis. This time her employer is the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), an independent division dependent on the advice of the Secretary of State. One of her jobs, as part of a five-year, $7.5 billion federal aid package, is repairing damage from devastating floods that started in July of this year. Before the floods, says Frese, the U.S. government planned to concentrate on improving irrigation systems to improve drinking water. Now the focus is on rebuilding irrigation systems that are bigger and better.
Frese looks forward to confirming once again that Americans and foreigners are united by a need for the security of good health, peace, and family. And she can’t wait to eat spicier dal.